Highbrow. Lowbrow. No brow. Now what?
It was only 50 or so years ago that critics and intellectuals were busy constructing -- and redrawing, and shoring up -- hierarchies about what kinds of culture were good for us and which ones were bad. ¶ Literary man Dwight Macdonald wrote a famous essay about “Masscult and Midcult” -- both, he said, were degrading real, traditional High Culture. Art critic Clement Greenberg, in an influential essay about modern painting, looked at “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” championing the former as essential to the human spirit and denouncing the latter as tinder for a fascist revolution. ¶ But judging from my recent conversations with a handful of literary and intellectual types -- the heirs, you could say, to the Macdonald/Greenberg tradition -- we live, today, in a pleasingly hierarchy-free, almost utopian cultural world. Most people I know share my disparate taste, enjoying “South Park” alongside Franz Schubert, the crisply plotted novels of James M. Cain as well as the philosophically searching films of Antonioni.
Do guilt or shame still play a role in shaping people’s taste? The answer was a unanimous “no.” What I found instead when I asked my posse what culture they were consuming this summer was a sense of good feeling, an expectation of openness -- a lack of angst all around. (Writer Michael Chabon, whom I interview on Page F9, even said he hates the very phrase “guilty pleasure.”)
“My reading in general is kind of heavy and pretentious,” said New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross, who favors modernist literary masterpieces. “But when I go to the movies, I love to see bloated Hollywood blockbusters. I never worry too much about the category that those experiences fall into.”
“I’ll probably go see ‘Hellboy II,’ ” said the unimpeachably smart Salon book critic Laura Miller. “I like to see popcorn movies in the theater.”
Pico Iyer, the eminent Japan-and-California-based travel writer, told me: “One highlight of recent summers for me was ‘Nacho Libre’; I saw it in a packed house on opening night and subsequently hurried to see it again, so carried away was I by Jack Black’s impromptu hymn.” Like a true 21st century man, Iyer likes to mix it up: This summer, his favorite has been “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a grim Romanian art-house film (now on DVD) unlikely to be remade with Jack Black.
Not that it matters. “To me, high and low, guilt and innocence, masscult and midcult are as out of date now as East and West and old and new,” said Iyer, who thinks globalism and the Internet have shuffled all the decks. “Many of the more interesting artists today, from a Salman Rushdie to a Sigur Ros, blur the distinctions in all kinds of ways ‘til we don’t know, exhilaratingly, if we’re being elevated or entertained.”
Miller was more sober but no less decisive: “There are still some people who are snobs about it,” she said. “But they are so few and they don’t have much influence on anyone but other snobs.”
How THEN could this melting of the hierarchies have happened so quickly and so completely?
Ross thinks his own listening -- from Messiaen to Missy Elliott to Miles Davis -- is pretty typical these days. “The most natural state is to have this curiosity and openness,” he said, describing “a deep-seated American impulse. It was only in the 20th century when people really tried to organize and divide different art forms off from each other.”
Ross is fond of a scene that begins Lawrence Levine’s “Highbrow / Lowbrow,” which describes Shakespeare performances on the 19th century American frontier. “There were scrambled programs,” Ross said, “with a Rossini aria, then a vaudeville pianist, and then a movement from a string quartet, and then dancers, and then something from Shakespeare.” That kind of mix, he said, “is very deeply rooted culturally,” and today’s eclecticism is just a return to the way things were before culture became sacred.
Novelist and Los Angeles magazine film critic Steve Erickson thinks the ice broke more recently. “Mass media, as much as anything else, has broken down the distinction between high and low,” he said. “One of the reasons the Beatles took over the world was they came along at a certain point on the timeline,” when they could appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” show up in magazines and record songs that would play all over the world with a then-unheard-of speed. Thanks to their interest in classical and experimental music, they made strict highbrow / lowbrow divisions look creaky: With 1966’s “Revolver” album alone, said Erickson, “The Beatles obliterated those distinctions.”
Other distinctions are melting away as well. Formerly “uncool” musicians -- psychedelic cowboy Lee Hazlewood, for instance, who died last summer -- have become very cool today “because people have gone back to listen with fresh ears and without those cultural biases,” Erickson said. “Kids today can see something on YouTube and get into it without looking over their shoulder.”
But it’s taken awhile for other perceived bastions of the culture to catch up. “One of the areas that lags behind the rest of the culture is literature,” Erickson said, “with the New York Times perpetuating those high / low distinctions,” in the attention it gives to realistic, purportedly “literary” fiction over genre works rooted in fantasy, horror or pulp traditions.
This may be, but Miller, who writes often for that hidebound Times, doesn’t think literary types worry all that much about these categories. They don’t even consider pulpy work a guilty pleasure anymore. “I think most people are so proud of themselves for reading anything,” she said, “that they don’t make a huge distinction between high and low.”
Instead, they feel guilty about things that seem to them morally reprehensible or utterly mindless.
“What people feel sheepish about is that they watch ’24' and can’t stop. . . . It’s so politically repellent, but you can’t stop watching. As opposed to something that is just fluff. If I read something like a chick-lit book, I don’t think I’d feel guilty. Who really feels guilty about fluff anymore?”
Americans, she said, began to see reading as “morally improving” about the time radio and movies began to dominate leisure time, and the arrival of television in the ‘50s made reading seem more virtuous still. As reading has been moved aside by the Internet and everything else, its connection to virtue has only increased.
Restoring some value
Iwonder sometimes if we may have succeeded too well in getting rid of distinctions, though. It’s hard for me to avoid a low-grade worry that we’re losing our ability to recognize quality itself.
“What we seem to have nowadays is more of a hierarchy of media,” said Iyer, “whereby, for example, dance, classical music, opera, and even theater and books, all of which commanded their own sections in Time magazine only a generation ago, are now regarded as lofty and remote subjects for only a handful of connoisseurs.” Those pages, he said, are “given over now to a Britney watch or extended investigations into the new iPhone.”
Instead of feeling guilty about reading pulp novels, he said, we worry that we’ve become “elitist” if we go see chamber music or jazz. “The culture as a whole seems to have decided which arts are elitist and which ones popular, and so made some people feel guilty to be watching European movies [otherwise known as art-house stuff] or to be reading novels not likely to be turned into screenplays.”
Having some standards seems more and more important in a time when the traditional arts have lost a bit of their prestige, some of their audience, and all of their monopoly on perceived quality. As silly as the chaste, Victorian tones of the literary and high culture worlds could be in their heyday, we need a certain amount of seriousness in our lives. At least I do. If the marketplace is left entirely unfettered, we’ll lose a lot of what we consider valuable -- not just J.S. Bach and John Coltrane but shows such as “Deadwood” and nonchain bookstores.
In California, among the least traditional of states, we have an unusual perch. For a long time, it has had a more flexible sense of what was valuable than Eastern elites did. But California became bound up in tyrannical ideas of hipness as well as a Cult of Now. “The West Coast became a concept unto itself,” Erickson said. “And things that didn’t conform to that were dismissed as passe.”
The great 21st century work seems to me to merge this promiscuous blend of pop styles with a rigor and discipline that comes from the old-school approach to serious art. So I don’t just mean, say, the exuberant, 1990s-style high / lowisms of Quentin Tarantino and Beck, whose films and music, respectively, are wonderful but driven by, let’s face it, an adolescent sensibility. (I’m leaving poignant, mature work such as Beck’s “Sea Change” and Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” out of this.)
What I’m talking about -- what I hope the demise of rigid hierarchies is leading us to -- is a flowering of work that draws on the whole range of culture but with a genius of structure and sophistication as well: novels such as David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” from 2004, which merges a South Seas adventure story with a ‘70s-style corporate thriller with a science-fiction tale into an intricate whole, or Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which rightly won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for its combination of trash-talking, comic book love and very serious Dominican history lesson.
It’s what I expect to find when I see “The Dark Knight,” which, let’s not forget, was made by Christopher Nolan, an outsider (and literature student) whose first masterpiece, “Memento,” was a bizarre personal vision made with very limited connections to the Hollywood mainstream.
I’d dig those any time, any season.